Friday December 6, 1996

     Formidably insincere, obsessed with appearances and armed with well-developed systems of humiliation, the 18th century milieu of "Ridicule" sounds a lot like today's Hollywood, with a key difference: the joy taken in language and the focus on wit as the key that opens every door.
     Set at the Versailles court of Louis XVI in 1783, just six years before the revolution, "Ridicule" relishes its chance to play around with words. Witty, intelligent and quintessentially French, it is an unusually involving costume drama that takes us into a decadent world few will know existed, a place where "vices are without consequence but ridicule can kill."
     As exposed by screenwriter Remi Waterhouse and director Patrice Leconte, the king and his court thrive on icy disdain. Cutting people up is their main pastime, destructive wit the weapon of choice, and since the wrong word can ruin someone absolutely and even lead to exile, mastery of language couldn't be a more serious business.
     New to this system is provincial nobleman Gregoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling, the publisher in "Nelly and M. Arnaud"). A man of the modern age who believes in the power of science, he is determined to drain the malarial swamps of his native Dombes region and save his peasants. But he needs the approval and support of the king to get the job done and Versailles is the only place that can be accomplished.
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     Thin-lipped and prone to earnest hopes about "opening the king's eyes," Ponceludon is viewed with mocking disdain by this dissipated world. Though he has a more-than-agile tongue, he doesn't know the territory, which is why a chance meeting with the Marquis de Bellegarde (smooth veteran Jean Rochefort) proves critical.
     Bellegarde takes a liking to the young man and determines to help him with the politicking and mental dexterity necessary to gain the ear of the king. Don't laugh at your own remarks, he advises, don't indulge in puns and, above all, "be witty, sharp and malicious and you'll succeed."
     It's not quite so simple, of course, for in an aristocratic cesspool like Versailles getting on the wrong side of powerful people is always a danger. Ponceludon almost immediately offends a viper-like cleric (Bernard Giraudeau), but he also attracts the favorable notice of the formidable Madame de Blayac (Fanny Ardant at her most persuasive).
     A flirtatious woman of the world, alternately calculating and seductive and thought to be the mistress of the king, Madame de Blayac would be a powerful ally for anyone, especially a novice. But her aid doesn't come without its costs and as Ponceludon gets caught up in calculations and intrigues, the possibility arises that he may become as heartless as everyone else in pursuit of his goal.
     All this becomes more complicated with the arrival of Bellegarde's beautiful daughter Mathilde (Judith Godreche), who displays a no-doubt historically accurate penchant for low-cut frocks and a passion for scientific experimentation, both of which catch Ponceludon's eye.
     An independent, free-thinking woman, Mathilde has difficulties of her own. Intent on finding the funding for her work with a primitive diving suit, she is on the verge of a mercenary marriage to a lecherous old man. Ponceludon disapproves of both her suitor and her scientific bent, but strong-minded Mathilde is as used as he is to getting her own way.
     Director Leconte, whose eclectic previous work includes "Monsieur Hire" and "The Hairdresser's Husband," has found a rare balance between the warmth of traditional romance and an acid portrayal of a corrupt, disdainful world that is unaware of the apocalypse it is headed toward.
     Ideally cast across the board, "Ridicule's" success always comes back to Waterhouse's literate, bracing script, the result of considerable research into the French court. Leconte has said that reading it gave him "the sensation of actually entering the 18th century by a hidden, rarely used door." His handsomely appointed film makes that door accessible to everyone, and crossing the threshold is an experience to savor.


Ridicule, 1996. R, for graphic nudity, some sexuality and brief violence. Released by Miramax Films. Director Patrice Leconte. Producers Gilles Legrand, Frederic Brillion, Phillipe Carcassonne. Screenplay Remi Waterhouse. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast. Supervising editor Joelle Hache. Costumes Christian Gasc. Music Antoine Duhamel. Production design Ivan Maussion. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. Charles Berling as Ponceludon de Malavoy. Jean Rochefort as Marquis de Bellegarde. Fanny Ardant as Madame de Blayac. Judith Godreche as Mathilde de Bellegarde. Bernard Giraudeau as Abbot de Vilecourt.